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Utah businesses brace for lost dollars as Sundance begins its second online-only festival

Lit marquee at Egyptian Theatre says "Sundance Film Festival."
Jon Reed
/
KUER
The last in-person festival brought in about 44,000 out-of-state visitors to Park City, who spent about $135 million in Utah during the festival.

As the Sundance Film Festival marks its 44th year, it’s once again delivering its lineup of films, talks and performances to audiences in an online-format — much like the 2021 event.

Festival organizers made the tough call to move the event fully online just two weeks before it began this year. They tried to keep it in-person by requiring festival goers to be tested, vaccinated and boosted, but ultimately organizers decided the omicron surge was too much. Summit County also instituted a mask mandate due to rising COVID case numbers.

At the opening press event Thursday, festival director Tabitha Jackson said the choice was both easy and hard.

“Once we had the data about the public health implications of a festival taking place in Park City … it was very easy to know that it would be irresponsible to continue in-person,” Jackson said. “[It’s] very hard because of our disappointment at not being able to be back in Park City, expressing the festival fully and being together in-person with our community.”

Organizers had already planned on a hybrid event, maintaining the online platform that hosted the festival last year. That made the logistical hurdles of moving to a virtual-only event less significant than they otherwise would have been. But the financial impacts are felt by organizers, ticket holders and local businesses alike.

The sudden need to pivot virtually left ticket-holders and those with hotel reservations with few options. Some complained they would not receive refunds for cancellations.

In an update to ticket holders, Sundance officials said they could offer credit for next year’s event and additional free film passes.

“We rely heavily on the Film Festival to continue our mission-centered work and the financial implications of this shift will inevitably require us to reduce the support to artists that we provide year round,” the statement said. “This is the last thing we want to do as a nonprofit institute, and is one of the reasons why our hybrid products were set up as nonrefundable.”

Jennifer Wesselhoff, president and CEO of the Park City Chamber of Commerce, said prior to the cancellation notice, reservations were filling up and on par with 2019 numbers. She said the sudden switch to online will mean significant impacts to hotels, restaurants, galleries and front-line workers who depend on tips.

“It’s impacting everybody,” she said. “Winter is really important. Sundance is really important. But we're kind of getting used to operating in this uncertainty of COVID and just doing our best to survive.”

She said the winter ski season, though, has already brought in a huge influx of people — not quite back to pre-pandemic levels, but close. She said the economy is still strong right now and businesses are optimistic about the remainder of the season.

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